Lady Gaga wasn’t kidding: Her ARTPOP really could mean anything.
Like nude yodeling in the woods with Marina Abramovic. “I am every icon.” The Jeff Koons gazing balls. The Perez Hilton Is Stalking My Entire Life And Trying To Kill Me tweets. #StopTheDramaStartTheMusic. That cardboard square “Applause” opener at the 2013 MTV VMA’s. Fozzi the Bear as headpiece. ArtRave. The Berlin Wall space alien. That mustache. Flying dresses. ART. POP. SEX. TECH. FASHION. KOONS. PEREZ. WEED. GOOSE.
The ARTPOP era has been, well…a lot.
But to appreciate ARTPOP fully — that is, to truly immerse oneself in the Reverse Warholian Expedition — one must distance themselves entirely from the noise, the outfits, the hashtags and everything in between, take a deep breath and dive in with willing ears and open arms — to hold onto a blue Koons gazing ball, of course.
It should be fairly clear by now that the ARTPOP era is Sister Swine’s messiest, most convoluted moment to date — but then, that certainly seems to be what she was going for. Last summer, Gaga’s campaign promise for ARTPOP — back when she was still performing the Born This Way Ball and getting high a whole lot — was to create a record with “a tremendous lack of maturity.” (That she was being carted around the stage as a human motorcycle during that tour is beside the point.)
ARTPOP certainly ticks that box — it’s nucking futs.
The album itself plays like a very conscious response to the ongoing backlash Gaga’s faced since the entire Born This Way era — from the endless Madonna comparisons (which now feel quite reductive), to the chart performance of her last few singles, to her intention as an artist.
At some point, it became clear to those actually paying attention to her ARTPOP antics that Gaga wasn’t actually being all that serious. She was playing into the over-the-top hype stirred during the last go-around: Early into the “Applause” launch, she poked fun at herself with an anti-Gaga viral video in which she declared herself, quite amazingly, “a flop.” And when she performed her single at the VMA’s (which was completely overshadowed by Miley‘s twerking), she wandered onto the stage to the sound of pre-recorded boos. Even the single artwork for “Applause” — albeit a shameless rip-off of Bowie‘s “Scary Monsters” artwork (it’s Gaga, you should expect nothing less!) — reimagined Gagaloo as The Clown.
She became the attention thirsty butt of the joke in pop music; the court jester — and she’s certainly continuing to own that: “THIS IS THE ALBUM OF THE MILLENNIUM!” she declared on Twitter. “I was trying to think of something more ridiculous than Millennium..ALBUM OF INFINTE!” she joked later.
And so, to craft the record of the millennium, Gaga enlisted her go-to producers — DJ White Shadow and RedOne, as well as a few new faces in the EDM world: Madeon and Zedd. There are a few guest producers as well — including Infected Mushroom on “Aura” (actually, it’s just a sample of one of their songs), Rick Rubin on “Dope” and weirdly, will.i.am and David Guetta on “Fashion!” — oh, and Gaga herself on “Venus.”
Despite her eclectic style (understatement of the century), Gaga’s albums always follow a general theme or narrative: The Fame was a frothy, frivolous ode to, uh, fame (duh!), The Fame Monster addressed the darker side of fame (sort of!) and Born This Way was all about self-empowerment (gays!). ARTPOP is no exception, although it’s perhaps her most convoluted theme yet — a cross between the worship of art, both modern — including her new BFFs Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic — and classic, like Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” astrology (VE-NUZ) and a little bit of Bedtime Stories-era Madonna‘s “go fuck yourself, haters” attitude. (I’M NOT SUGGESTING IT’S A RIP-OFF, PLEASE PUT DOWN THE TORCHES.)
Appropriately (and/or unfortunately), ARTPOP kicks off to the sound of a with one of its most aurally jarring productions: “Aura,” a half brilliant, mostly insane song that leaked early into the ARTPOP promo campaign in demo form. The intro might explain its curious position in the tracklisting: “I killed my former and left her in the trunk on highway 10 / Put the knife under the hood / If you find it, send it straight to Hollywood,” Gaga murderously deadpans. That’s right — her former self is dead. Stefani, maybe? Or is it the hair bow-wearing Gaga that we fell in love with? Who knows? Someone’s dead. HAHAHA! After a maniacal laugh, the song weaves haphazardly between completely unhinged verses (that have been dulled after an unnecessary re-recording, worst!) and an utterly heaven-sent chorus of “Bad Romance”-level excellence — or even beyond: “Do you wanna see me naked, lover? Do you wanna peek underneath the cover?” she cries. It’s such an earnest, gorgeous melody that, if polished, could have been part of the greatest pop song of 2013 — but then it’s back to the fuckery — a touch of cultural appropriation here (“enigma pop star is fun, she wear burqa for fashion!”), a bit of naughty genius there (“But in the bedroom, the size of him’s more than enough”). ART. POP.
Nothing is more fun and immediately infectious than “G.U.Y,” an unapologetically thirsty, astronomical genderfuck moment of pop perfection: “Greetings Himeros, God of Sexual Desire,” Gaga announces at the start atop a dinky, 8-bit intro (that sort of sounds like “Judas”): “Son of Aphrodite, lay back, and feast as this audio guides you through new and exciting positions.” You see, it’s all about being the G.U.Y (that’s the Girl Under You — DO U SEE WHAT SHE DID THERE?) getting rammed to the heavens by her G.I.R.L: “I wanna be that guy (G-U-Y),” she moans across the chorus, one of the most immediately, endlessly replay-ready cuts on the record. And don’t worry, sexuality studies majors — it’s empowering! “I don’t have to be on top to know I’m wanted, ’cause I’m strong enough to know the truth,” she declares. An inspiring assertion of power via insertion — and a new national anthem for power bottoms everywhere.
Further on, Gaga draws inspiration from a sound that will never go out of style. “Sexxx Dreams” — one of the album’s best moments — is a purely Prince/Vanity 6-inspired production, seductively sauntering into the speakers across a nasty, smutty slap of a beat. “Heard your boyfriend was away this weekend / Ya wanna meet at my place?” Gaga beckons. (Can’t you just imagine her rolling around in a Kermit The Frog negligee? Tempting!) From the moaning background vocals (“It was kind of nasty!“) to the (“makin’ love in my sex dreams!”), there’s no part of “Sexxx Dreams” that isn’t purely aural sex.
While ARTPOP is more explicit than her past records, it’s hardly a sex album: “The Edge of Glory” was one of the moments Gaga truly got her earnesty right on Born This Way, and she’s brought that formula back on ARTPOP in the form of an ode to love in the time of wanderlust, “Gypsy.” A fan favorite from the start (thanks to a poignant, mustachioed piano performance in Berlin), “Gypsy” is the kind of arena anthem that already sounds like it’s being belted in the middle of a sold-out Madison Square Garden. It’s a slow and steady build, but once it reaches that Journey-esque chorus (“I don’t want to be alone forever, but I can be…TONIGHT!,” there’s no going back. Cue the endless intercontinental shout-outs at the end (“I don’t speak German, but I try!” — a cute nod to “Scheiße”), and you’ve got an instant classic from ARTPOP.
Speaking of classics from the album, “Do What U Want” is one the album’s strongest moments by far — and, as it turns out, a smart choice for a second single, in part because the production is so refreshingly coherent and simple in comparison to the rest of the record. The vaguely Island-tinged electro-R&B groove sees Gaga trading off seductive verses with her new pal R. Kelly. “You can’t stop my voice ’cause you don’t own my life, but do what you want with my body!” she yelps — or, more accurately, “DURWHATCHUHWAHWIMMAH BAAAHDAY.” R. Kelly is a silky-smooth co-pilot, past #drama be damned: It’s as much a response to media criticism as it is a sexy back-and-forth about getting it on, as multi-purpose as it is melodic; a rare moment for Gaga when the message doesn’t overpower the melody.
That being said, “Venus” is all sorts of incredible too — but not nearly as radio-friendly. Gaga’s gone Barbarella in the kitschy, campy, Sun Ra-referencing number. With lyrics clearly concocted after one too many nights gazing at the emoji on her iPhone (“Aphrodite lady seashell bikini…garden panty”), the song initially plays as overwhelming as the ARTPOP era feels. But give it time — the actual chorus is “Bad Romance”-level good. “When you touch me, I die just a little inside / I wonder if this could be love,” she mini-orgasms. Also, that planetary countdown? “Uranus…DON’T YOU KNOW MY ASS IS FAMOUS?” Genius. The way she pronounces “Venus” (“VEE-NUZ“) is worthy of heaps of praise alone — and yes, she definitely knows it sounds like “penis.”
There’s only one moment on ARTPOP that is staggeringly inconsistent with the rest of the album (remember — her ARTPOP could mean anything!), and that’s “Jewels N Drugs,” the #SomethingMoreUrban moment of the album. Whereas Gaga dips her feet nicely into slinky R&B sound on “Do What U Want,” “Jewels N Drugs” dives headfirst into ominous trap beats, DJ White Shadow-produced EDM breakdowns, mile-a-minute verses from a slew of guest rappers (T.I., Too $hort & Twista) and Gaga’s over-the-top theatrical flow. It sounds exactly like what I imagine Judy Garland high on purp in the clurb would sound like — messy as hell, but sort of fun.
In fact, there’s only one song that drops the Koons ball entirely: Whereas “Gypsy” soars as a piano-led ballad, the Rick Rubin-produced “Dope” drags. Severely. The song had promise when it first premiered as “I Wanna Be With You” during the iTunes Festival, but now — with revised lyrics that more explicitly address the (applause worthy) underlying message about sobriety and success — it’s just dull. Painfully so. And when the emotion turns on, it’s cartoonishly inflated. (Admittedly, I’ve never been too fond of Gaga’s ambling piano balladry, but this one’s truly just irredeemably meh.
There are a few tracks that feel like Born This Way leftovers as well: The stomping, hand clap-happy “MANiCURE” receives a nice polish following its live debut at the iTunes Festival, including an incredibly catchy “Can you feel it? Can you feel it?” chant. It’s sort of like a lovey-dovey cousin to Born This Way‘s “Bad Kids,” with a signature Gaga stutter-filled chorus (“Muh-muh-muh-manicure!“) atop fiery glam-rock guitar licks.
Then, there’s “Mary Jane Holland,” which might as well be a marijuana-minded sequel to Born This Way‘s incredible “Heavy Metal Lover.” The synth-heavy production washes across the speakers with a menacing stomp, as Gaga travels abroad to Amsterdam making deals with devils and meeting up with her girl, Mary Jane. The track is a killer, but it’s also so heavily produced and layered with electronica that you can barely understand what Gaga’s even moaning. (On the first listen, I’m hearing “My dachshund, Russian hookah, empty bed!”) But it’s the heavy metal breakdown at the 3-minute mark though that lifts the song into another dimension: “I know that mom and dad think I’m a mess / But it’s alright because I am rich as piss!” (So much for hating that money, right Gags?) This one’s one of the very best of the bunch — those yelping hooks will linger in your mind like a strong puff of the good stuff.
“Fashion!” is a fun one for ARTPOP, and a chance for will.i.am and David Guetta to share a rare moment of diversity away from their usual paint-by-numbers dance floor style. (“Scream & Shout,” this is not.) The track feels like a blend of David Bowie‘s “Let’s Dance” with Daft Punk‘s “Get Lucky” — in other words, it sounds like a Nile Rodgers production.) There’s a dozen earworms jammed in there and so, so many memorable lyrics — “I own the world! We own the world!”, an opulent hat tip to Paris Is Burning as well as a “Marry The Night” shout-out — that keep the record both looking good and feeling fine.
Of course, the couture lovin’ doesn’t stop at “Fashion!” Lady Gaga’s got a special ode for her special friend Donatella Versace on the record — and it’s pure, unadulterated camp. “I am so fab,” she deadpans in the “Donatella” opening. “I’m blonde, I’m skinny, I’m rich…and I’m a little bit of a bitch.” The glitchy, stomping thumper feels like a throwback to the days of “Fashion” (the 2009 version), when things were a bit sillier and deliciously, playfully materialistic. “Just ask your gay friends for advice before you get a spray tan on holiday in Taipei!” Sure, all that “thin” talk might go against the mission statement of the Born This Way Foundation, but don’t get too butthurt about the lyrics (and don’t get butthurt about “butthurt”) — it’s all tongue-in-cheek. Plus, that beat is sick. Voodoo, voodoo, voo-do-na-na!
Gagaloo lets her freak flag fly higher than ever on “Swine,” which is clearly the album’s most unhinged moment, as she lashes out against a pig (in a human body, that is) across several hair-raising, teeth-gritting, heart-stopping acid techno-laced beat drops. “Squealer, squealer, squealer/ You’re so disgusting! You’re just a pig inside,” she declares. It’s a blood-pumping rager — the song you blast while taking swings at your Perez punching bag and exorcising those demons along with Gaga just as soon as you hear that primal, spasm-inducing squeal: “SWINE!” Judging by the balls-to-the-wall iTunes performance, this one will go down huge in concert.
Considering the fact that “ARTPOP” is the title track, you’d think that the song would pack a serious wallop — but in fact, it’s actually a fairly understated gem. The song pulses along a subtle, soothing electronic pulse similar to Selena Gomez‘s “Love You Like A Love Song” (Gaga always copies the legends of pop!), cooing sweet nothings and inviting us into her lady seashell-covered bosom. “Give it time, sometimes the simplest move is right,” she sings. She’s right, which is why “ARTPOP” itself works so well.
“Applause” rounds out the collection — a curious way to treat a lead single — but it still feels like the right first impression for the album. The verses are nerdy and abrasive; the chorus is heaven-sent earworm electro-pop goodness. It’s a solid representation of ARTPOP — the showy, self-important “nerd” girl (“Some of us just like to read!”) and, mercifully, the Lady Gaga that still just wants us to dance five years later.
ARTPOP is The Fame without The Filter, meaning that the songs are defiantly weirder, wilder and vastly less manicured. “Mary Jane Holland” sounds like “Heavy Metal Lover” being played on loop on top of itself. “Venus” contains a chorus of “Bad Romance” proportions tucked away inside a Mystery Science Theater 3000 theme song. “Aura” pairs utterly garbage re-recorded verses that seriously lack bite with one of the year’s best, most transcendent pop choruses. The magic is still very much there, albeit somewhat buried underneath layers upon layers of EDM and mangled hooks, left in place only by an artist with a history of “creative differences” who has clearly surrounded herself with a team of yes men — or rather, “YASSSS” men.
There are far too many ideas here and too many sounds being explored all at once, which is bound to distract and annoy the general public. It’s something that may eventually come back to bite her — in fact, that time may very well be now.
Still, the backlash against Gaga is boring.
Yes, Gaga is exhausting — but she always has been, which is why the criticism being hurled at her right now seems pretty unjustified — and that’s coming from somebody who took every opportunity possible to call her a Madonna tribute act for years. “Her lyrics are nonsense.” Um, was “bluffin’ with my muffin” particularly revelatory? “She just wears that stuff for attention.” Uh, you guys didn’t seem too mad about the meat dress when that happened. “I’m scared of her crazy mouth noises!” Was she not wailing during those early “Poker Face” and “You & I” piano performances, too? “She’s ripping off [INSERT ARTIST HERE]”! Yes, true, but she was ripping off Bowie, Grace Jones and Madonna from the start and you loved it then. Also, this just happens to be her most sonically unique record to date.
Let’s be real here: Lady Gaga might be fifty shades of extra, but she is still incredibly important as a pop star. She’s a supremely talented performer — one of the best live acts we have in pop music at the moment — and ARTPOP is a standout, injecting as much weirdness and awkward art world references as it possibly can into a solid pop record before crossing the line of mainstream radio-friendliness. (That’s not to say ARTPOP is the most sonically innovative pop record of the year, because it’s not — dance music isn’t exactly a new sound.)
Too much of a (mostly) good thing isn’t a bad thing at all, especially considering today’s pop climate.
In a year when Lady Gaga’s fellow heavyweights didn’t really seem to try very much at all — when Beyoncé inked a $50 million deal with Pepsi to go on a tour to promote nothing in particular and tease snippets of songs in H&M commercials that no one can buy on iTunes, when Britney landed in a helicopter in the middle of the desert for no reason to announce a Vegas residency that she may or may not even want to do, and when Katy Perry released an inoffensive collection of Teenage Dream B-sides for 14-year-olds — pop music’s greatest try-hard gave us the year’s most fabulously over-the-top shitshow that absolutely deserves your applause.
‘ARTPOP’ was released on November 11. (iTunes)